my student experience

A Florentine Dream: Four Months in Italia

It's hard, with three feet of snow on the ground and flakes still in the air, to imagine that, right now, the piazzas of Italy are filled with crowds treading across smooth cobblestones; that the grinning guy selling roses to couples at the Trevi Fountain is still at it; that the Duomo in Florence is still welcoming hushed crowds into its enormous, beautiful space; that a ristorante that will never be featured in a guidebook is about to prepare the most amazing meal of an American's life.

Tomatoes are redder, peaches are sweeter, house wines are superior, history is longer, life is (or seems) better in Italy. The warmth of the people, the scent of lemons in the air, even the sound of the buzzing Vespas stamp themselves into a visitor with a boot-shaped mark that is permanent.

Just ask Sara Di Pesa, of Hingham, Mass., who spent a semester studying at the Lorenzo de Medici-Art Institute of Florence. Ask her about Florence, and she'll tell you about the food, the fun, the memories. Ask her what it was like to leave after four short months, and tears will come to her eyes. Ask her what she's planning to do after graduation, and don't be surprised that the answer involves Europe.

Getting Started

Di Pesa's passport had gotten a workout before her study-abroad adventure, as she visited Spain, France and England in high school, but she always wanted to go to Italy. Before transferring to Colby-Sawyer as a sophomore, she even studied Italian for a year. Going abroad as a first-semester senior was, De Pesa admits, a “weird time to go,” but it was the right time, considering her transfer and need to get settled at Colby-Sawyer.

Under the guidance of Nancy Teach, director of Student Affairs and International Programs, Di Pesa researched her options and picked the Lorenzo de Medici School offered by Academic Programs International. The program cost just under $14,000 and included tuition, housing, medical and life insurance, local social activities, multiple cultural excursions and events, pre-departure and on-site orientations and support services, an on-site director, mobile phones and tutoring. Sara in the Cinque Terre, a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the northwest coast of Italy.

The same semester's tuition, room and board at Colby-Sawyer totaled $19,980, but the seemingly small difference between the locations is made much larger, according to Teach, because while federal sources of financial aid can go toward study abroad, Colby-Sawyer assistance cannot. This and other factors, such as requirements within a major, rule out half to three-quarters of students who come to Teach interested in studying abroad.

It's hard to stop a determined traveler like Di Pesa, though, and on August 26 she headed to Rome for three days of orientation before her transfer to Florence.

“Packing was hard because of the airline's weight limits on luggage, but I'm pretty organized,” says Di Pesa. “Leaving was scary and exciting. I flew by myself into this enormous city, only to find lots of kids from New England on my program arriving at the same time; it was kind of funny to fly across the ocean and end up in a cab with other Boston people. We stayed at a hotel and had orientation, which included exploring Rome.”

A Stranger in a ... Magical Land

The magic of Italy happened early for Di Pesa. On her second day in Rome, she was stepping out of an internet café when some American students on her program passed by. They were talking about going to the Spanish Steps and Di Pesa's ears perked up. She laughs at the memory.

“I just sort of blurted out, 'The Spanish Steps? Wait, isn't that where Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck in 'Roman Holiday' decide to take a Roman holiday?' And one of the girls said, 'That's my favorite movie!' It's one of my favorites, too, so we started talking about that and I ended up walking with them. So we're sitting at the Spanish Steps and someone said, 'Can you believe we're actually here?'

"It was just one of those moments - the sun was setting and we could see the dome over the Plaza di Spagna and there was so much ahead of us. I was so excited to be there, it was just a really special moment because it was the beginning, and I knew it was the beginning. I had already met fun people and was feeling secure. Plus, Audrey Hepburn had been there - I was in heaven.”

The optimistic energy of being in a new place sustained Di Pesa throughout her time abroad. After settling into her apartment with three fellow Americans, she dove into her new city and life - a life that included attending classes, even with Europe on her doorstep. “It was scary being there at first, but phenomenal. I actually loved Rome so much that I was afraid I'd made a mistake in choosing Florence, but after a few days I came to love it. The people running the program were so accommodating, and within the program I found a close-knit feeling similar to what I enjoy at Colby-Sawyer. It's a big program, but it was comfortable,” says Di Pesa.

Stepping outside her academic comfort zone, the English major signed up for an architecture class that took full advantage of the city's landmarks; a course exploring the rise and fall of the Medici family; another on the history of Italian cinema; an Italian language course, and Greek and Roman Mythology.

“It was sometimes hard to concentrate on the academic stuff, but it wasn't too bad because most of my classes were really interesting and involved in the area, so I got to learn a lot about Florence and Tuscany,” says Di Pesa. “But yeah, it was difficult. Each class met once a week for 2.5 hours, so it was really long, but then I was done, and there were no classes on Friday, which was nice for travelling. I had a lot of work to do, though, more than I expected.

"The classes were so different from what I usually do. Size wise they were about the same, my biggest was probably 25 kids, but I haven't taken many history courses, which I regret because it interests me, and I certainly haven't taken any architecture. The film class was very different from what I've taken at Colby-Sawyer, maybe not as good, but it was still really cool to be in Italy studying Italian film.”

Living with Americans and taking classes in English, Di Pesa found her interactions with Italians came mostly from shopping in the markets and going out to dinner and such. As enjoyable as eating out was, Di Pesa found that cooking with her flatmates was just as fun, not to mention more practical with the unfavorable exchange rate. Florence quickly felt like home, peppered with the neighborhood characters who are always in the same place at the same time and make one feel everything is right with the world.

“Going to the market and being able to interact with the vendors in Italian was the highlight of every day,” says Di Pesa. “There was this one old woman there who would always convince me to buy something … I would have no idea what she was saying, but she was so convincing I'd walk out of there with something - once it was an entire watermelon, that actually happened. She convinced me to buy it because the next day they were going out of season and she said I should get one while I could.

"Shopping at the market was my favorite thing to do, food wise, which is kind of strange, but I loved it. I miss being able to do that. There were so many people like her that I just saw all the time; there was a couple who would perform in the Piazza della Signoria every night, they would sing Simon and Garfunkle songs and it was really random and funny, so now every time I hear those songs, I can't even … oh, I'm so sad.”

Europe on Your Doorstep

With only four months in Europe, a sense of urgency often surfaced, spurring on Di Pesa and her new travel companions to get out and see as much as possible. There were weekends in Vienna, Amsterdam and Paris, as well as program-sponsored outings to Venice and Verona, Cinque Terre, the ballet, a musical, a soccer match and more. And, of course, there was fall break, a full week in which to poke around Europe. “We were so proud of ourselves for being able to organize those trips, booking the hotels and trains and everything,” muses Di Pesa, already sounding a bit surprised that there was ever a time for her when independent travel was a new phenomenon.

Such is the pull of Florence, however, that even as Di Pesa was about to set out on her fall break in the United Kingdom, the thought crossed her mind that she would actually prefer to stay put for her days off. “As excited as I was to see other places, I love Florence and did from the first - well, maybe the second - week I was there,” she laughs. “Then we hit London and there were so many musicals and plays and movies, and people were speaking English, and for about ten minutes I was thinking, It would have made so much more sense for me to come here, but when I got back to Florence … I love it there. It really felt like home.”

The Inevitable

Though Florence might have felt like home and a universe away from Colby-Sawyer, there was the small matter of Di Pesa's return ticket and the ever-approaching departure date. Four months in Florence is just not enough, and there was little time between the elation of arriving and the dread of leaving.

“As my time in Florence was coming to a close, it was just horrible,” says Di Pesa. “Not only was I dreading leaving this unbelievable place I had come to know as home, I was devastated to be leaving all these friends I had made. They're Americans and I can see them again, but not living in that tight-knit community was a daunting thought, I just didn't want to leave that behind. The only saving grace was that I love Christmas and I was coming back to that. I kept telling myself, It's going to be fine, it's going to be Christmas when you get home, everything will be okay, but I was devastated to leave, just devastated.”

As she speaks, there are tears in her eyes. “Our program provided transportation back to the Rome airport and we left on a bus at 4 a.m. so it was still dark, and it was the saddest thing I've ever had to do. We drove out of the square, and looking down one of the streets we could see straight to the Duomo, the symbol of Florence, and it was all lit up, and this moment on the bus, we all just, oh, we couldn't believe we were leaving, oh my God, it was horrible. I didn't want to leave.”

But she did, and gone was the gelato guy who knew her favorite flavors, gone were the pigeons patrolling the piazzas, gone was her Florence address. And gone, too, was the complete sense of being an American.

“The culture shock was a million times worse coming home than going away,” Di Pesa says. “When I went over, there was so much preparation - the program sent us pamphlets and online information and a lot to look at, to the point where I was almost too prepared. But coming back was a shock. I remember going into a supermarket for the first time and thinking, Why are there 400 brands of this? Is that necessary? "Everything is so big here. And driving everywhere, not being able to walk, that was a big adjustment. And actually having everyone understand you! Because my Italian was so limited, I had to plan out everything I wanted to say, what I could say in Italian and what parts I'd have to use gestures for – I still do that, then I realize - Oh wait, you can say that in English, use your words!”

Plans to Return

When Di Pesa tries to “use her words” to describe her study-abroad experience, they often either fail her or fall on deaf ears. It's hard, she says, for her fellow students to understand what she experienced, and that can be isolating and frustrating.

“I've been talking with professors who have travelled abroad, but with other students it's hard because no one really does know what it was like, or what it's like coming back. I'll tell friends that it was incredible and they'll say, 'Yeah, I bet,' and I'm like 'No, you don't get it.' They just don't understand the impact, or the change in me. Had I been a junior, I would have tried to stay longer. I am so jealous of the people who are there for a whole year.”

“I actually want to – and as an English major this doesn't really make sense, but – I want to go to culinary school, and I've been looking at a lot of schools over there. I would like to go back to Florence, but part of me thinks that's just because I know it and it's safe, but I don't know, I love Florence so much. I'm also looking at a place in Rome, a couple in London, and there's Paris, but I think I'll have to take a year off to make some money, figure things out, and then go the next year.”

To those Colby-Sawyer students who follow in her footsteps and choose to study abroad, Di Pesa offers this advice: “Be aware that your time is so short, no matter if you're going for a semester or a year. It's short, and it's shocking coming back. Do as much as you can. I did a fair amount of travelling and got to visit several countries and had some really crazy experiences, but there were times when I held back because I thought I didn't have enough money or I had too much work to do.

"Forget all that and take every opportunity available because the chances of having it again are not very good. Looking back, I did do a lot, but I could have done more. I don't want to say it was the best experience of my life because that sounds so dramatic and unlike me, but it's up there. There were so many great moments. And I will go back.”